February is Black History Month | Celebrating Black Environmentalists

Photo credit: San Francisco Dept of the Environment

“I have a dream…” In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial and delivered one of the most famous and moving speeches in our history. In this speech, Dr. King repeated again and again his dream of an America that was just, equitable and truly free for all of its citizens.

Today, we continue to inspire people to take responsibility for Earth while also working to integrate environmental and social justice as an essential part of our sustainability vision. In honor of Black History Month, we’re celebrating African American Environmentalists who have shaped the course of this journey to create a more sustainable future. We are remembering the need to work together across boundaries and differences in order to proactively seek change at every level: within our organizations, faith communities, businesses and educational institutions.

Below are just a few of the many environmentalists who have laid the groundwork for a more sustainable world.

Will Allen is the son of a sharecropper, former professional basketball player, ex-corporate sales leader and now farmer. The founder and CEO of Growing Power Inc., he has become recognized as one of our preeminent thinkers on agriculture and food policy and is a leading authority in the expanding field of urban agriculture. Allen promotes the belief that all people, regardless of their economic circumstances, should have access to fresh, safe, affordable and nutritious foods. Using methods he has developed over a lifetime, Allen specializes in bringing healthy food to under-served communities using a unique growing system he developed himself. He trains community members to become community farmers, assuring them a secure source of good food without regard to political or economic forces. What started as a simple partnership to change the landscape of the north side of Milwaukee has blossomed into a national and global commitment to sustainable food systems.

Dr. Robert Bullard is often referred to as the “father of the environmental justice movement.” He has been one of the leading voices on the issue for decades. In 2008, he was named one of Newsweek’s 13 “Environmental Leaders of the Century”. In 2013, he was the first African American to be honored with the Sierra Club John Muir Award. Dr. Bullard has authored numerous books on the prominence of waste facilities in predominately African-American areas all over the nation, as well as others that address urban land use, industrial facility siting, housing, transportation, climate justice, emergency response, smart growth, and equity. When asked what keeps him going in his quest for environmental justice, Bullard answers, “People who fight… People who do not let the garbage trucks and the landfills and the petrochemical plants roll over them. That has kept me in this movement for the last 25 years.”

Photo: M. David Leeds

Majora Carter is an internationally urban revitalization strategy consultant, real estate developer, and Peabody Award winning broadcaster who views urban renewal through an environmental lens. The South Bronx native draws a direct connection between ecological, economic and social degradation. With her inspired ideas and fierce persistence, Carter managed to bring the South Bronx its first open-waterfront park in 60 years. She was one of the first of six speakers on the prestigious TEDTalks series. Carter’s confidence, energy and intensely emotional delivery make her talks themselves a force of nature. In 2005, Carter was awarded a 2005 John D. and Katherine T. McArthur Foundation Fellow “genius” grant. Her company, the Majora Carter Group is putting the green economy and green economic tools to use, unlocking the potential of every place — from urban cities and rural communities, to universities, government projects, businesses and corporations – and everywhere else in between.

Van Jones has been hard at work in social justice for nearly two decades, crafting visionary solutions to some of urban America’s toughest problems—poverty, crime and environmental degradation. As the founder of Green For All, a national organization working to get green jobs to disadvantaged communities, Jones calls for an environmental revolution that is inclusive and equitable. He argues that we need a tide of change that ‘lifts all boats.’ Jones is also the co-founder of Rebuild the Dream, a platform for bottom-up, people-powered innovations to help fix the U.S. economy. Appointed the green jobs advisor to the Obama White in 2009, he helped run the inter-agency process that oversaw $80 billion in green energy recovery spending. He was the main advocate for the 2007 Green Jobs Act – the first piece of federal legislation to codify the term “green jobs.” He now leads Rebuild the Dream, a platform that promotes a socially and environmentally just economic recovery and appears regularly as a CNN commentator.

Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize

Marjorie Richard is the first African-American to win the Goldman Environmental Prize. Growing up in a historically African-American neighborhood in Norco, Louisiana, Richard was painfully aware of the devastating health problems her community faced as a result of the Shell refinery next door. According to Richard, the defining moment which convinced her to become an activist occurred in 1973 when a Shell pipeline exploded, knocking one house off its foundation and killing an elderly woman and a teenage boy who was mowing the lawn. Years later, she led the front line of a long, hard-won battle to hold Shell accountable. A master of political theater, Richard installed a Web camera in her trailer home to broadcast live feeds of the refinery spewing petrochemical byproducts. While speaking at an international environmental conference, Richard approached Shell officials and invited them to take a sniff from a bag of Norco air.